Syracuse University Magazine


Amit Agrawal

Creating Waves

Professor Amit Agrawal finds beauty in the most infinitesimal of realms, nanoscale spaces only detectable through powerful microscopes, using fabricated materials not found in the natural world. Agrawal conducts research in the field of nanoscience, specifically exploring the interaction of light with artificially fabricated materials, or metamaterials. He constructs metamaterials, composites of metals, such as silver or gold, and dielectrics—glass or polymers—that interact with electromagnetic waves or light in unique ways and, in turn, possess certain striking visual properties. Applying a voltage and shining light on these materials sometimes result in brilliant shades of reds, greens, and blues (RGB). “That’s why I like optics—you can see beautiful colors,” Agrawal says.

Some of his recent work involves trying to make an RGB pixel array—akin to ones in TV and cellphone screens—with special polymers coated on a nanostructured metal surface, exhibiting a variety of colors that could be turned on and off using electric fields. This field of study, electrochromism, could be especially useful in creating cheaper and more efficient visual displays. “The people in the display industry want contrast without sacrificing speed or switching efficiency,” says Agrawal, whose research was highlighted in the journals Nature, Nature Physics, and Nature Photonics. “There are intelligent ways of integrating such polymers with plasmonic or metal-based nanophotonic structures to achieve these goals.”

Agrawal, the inaugural John E. and Patricia A. Breyer Professor in Electrical Engineering, joined the L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science faculty in 2011, after conducting groundbreaking postdoctoral research with colleagues at the Center for Nanoscale Science and Technology (CNST) in the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST). “My general area of research is plasmonics. It’s a fancy word for optics that is based on metals,” says Agrawal, who holds a visiting fellow appointment at CNST.  “It’s the way light interacts with metals and it creates an electromagnetic wave at its surface called a plasmon—similar to a wave created on the surface of water when you throw a stone on it. Because of the properties of the metal and the medium surrounding it, plasmons have the same frequency but much shorter wavelength compared to the incident light—making them an ideal candidate for nanoscale optics applications.”

Agrawal’s research in collaboration with NIST centered on creating a large-area metamaterial that exhibits a negative refractive index at ultraviolet frequencies. Agrawal and his NIST colleagues constructed the metamaterial by stacking very thin layers of silver and titanium-dioxide that together act as a flat lens, as opposed to the curved convex or concave lenses typically found in optics. The flat lens, when illuminated with ultraviolet light, can directly image three-dimensional objects and has infinite optical axes, as opposed to a glass lens with only one axis.

At SU, Agrawal, who earned a B.E. degree in electronics and telecommunications at Pt. Ravishankar Shukla University and M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Utah, will soon conduct his research in L.C. Smith’s new Ultrafast Nanophotonics Lab. Much of Agrawal’s work is ripe for exploring applied areas—industrial, defense, and commercial uses—but it’s in the intrinsic science where he finds the most satisfaction. “There’s a fundamental domain where we still don’t completely understand how light interacts with such complex materials at the nanoscale,” says Agrawal, who teaches the graduate-level course, Nanophotonics. “We’re primarily working on the fundamentals and still figuring out the physics.”     —Kathleen Haley

John E. and Patricia A. Breyer Professor in Electrical Engineering

Recipient: Amit Agrawal, L.C. Smith College of Engineering and Computer Science

Background: SU Trustee and LCS Dean’s Leadership Council member John E. Breyer and his wife, Patricia A. Breyer, of Alpharetta, Georgia, endowed the professorship in electrical engineering with a gift to The Campaign for Syracuse University. “Pat and I have had close ties with Syracuse University for many years and wanted to support engineering and science in a lasting way,” Breyer says. “We felt that funding a professorship would achieve our goals as well as those of the University. We are pleased that Professor Amit Agrawal was selected to be the first person to fill the professorship. He is a deserving young scholar who will contribute to research and education at Syracuse University.”

Photo by Steve Sartori